SS Kyle mas­ter watch holds on to life at sea

He­ber McGurk rem­i­nisces on four-year stint aboard ship

The Compass - - Front Page - BY CHRIS LEWIS

Sit­ting in his liv­ing room, sur­rounded by pho­tos hang­ing on the walls that tell the story of his life, He­ber McGurk rem­i­nisces about his life aboard the SS Kyle.

Cur­rently, the ves­sel sits in the har­bour of Har­bour Grace, where it’s been stuck for 51 years, hav­ing ran aground in 1967. De­spite ef­forts to move the ves­sel, the 220-foot steamship has re­mained in its cur­rent po­si­tion ever since, and has be­come a sta­ple of Har­bour Grace tourism.

While the ship was ac­tive, it served as a means of trans­port­ing goods and peo­ple be­tween Car­bon­ear and Labrador, while also act­ing as an ice­breaker dur­ing the win­ter. The ves­sel also proved to be use­ful dur­ing the Sec­ond World War to trans­port sol­diers be­tween New­found­land and Canada.

Now, life aboard such ships is a thing of the past, and as the gen­er­a­tions go by, mem­o­ries of the SS Kyle’s life at sea are fad­ing.

How­ever, McGurk – who served as a quar­ter­mas­ter and mas­ter watch aboard the SS Kyle for four years – still holds those mem­o­ries dear to his heart.

“I signed on as quar­ter­mas­ter in 1962. We used to go back and forth, car­ry­ing freight to Hal­i­fax and back again to New­found­land. Af­ter Jan­uary, we’d get ready for the ice, and the seal fish­ery, and we’d be out there un­til around the last of April,” McGurk said of his life aboard the SS Kyle. “I had it pretty good, as quar­ter­mas­ter. I was also mas­ter watch, so I looked af­ter things like first aid and med­i­cal sup­plies.

“I had my own room, up by the smoke­room. It was a rough life­style, of course, be­ing out on the wa­ter for so long, but most of us loved it any­way.”

Hav­ing lived a life at sea for decades, the now 87-year-old McGurk has taken to a hum­bler life­style in his Car­bon­ear home. How­ever, that does not mean he’s left his old life be­hind. In­stead, McGurk spends his time with arts and crafts pro­jects, with many of these cen­tred around the SS Kyle. Paint­ings of the ship can be found through­out his home, as well as small mod­els of the now over 100-year-old ship.

McGurk says this is not only a means of keep­ing him­self busy, but also a way for him to keep his fond mem­o­ries of the ship alive and well.

“I’ve got more sto­ries from that ship than any­one has time for,” McGurk told The Com­pass, fol­lowed by a bout of laugh­ter, which was again fol­lowed by the re­count­ing of sev­eral sto­ries, in­clud­ing times of amuse­ment and peril.

Most no­tably, McGurk was tasked with re­pair­ing dam­aged riv­ets the ship suf­fered af­ter spend­ing three days at sea, stuck against a grounded ice­berg that stood ap­prox­i­mately 10-storeys high.

The en­counter left the SS Kyle with 21 popped riv­ets, which McGurk set out to fix by be­ing low­ered down the port side of the ship while still at sea on the boatswain’s chair, along­side a me­chanic. Af­ter some time be­ing ex­posed to the harsh el­e­ments, McGurk had com­pleted his task, and the ex­ces­sive dam­age the ship had suf­fered was reme­died.

“I had to change my clothes three dif­fer­ent times, I was that soak­ing wet,” he said of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “But you do what you have to do. That’s the way it was out there.”

As for the cur­rent state of the ship, McGurk says that al­though he feels as though some ef­fort should be put into main­tain­ing it and keep­ing it in good con­di­tion, he ac­knowl­edged how dif­fi­cult such an en­deav­our could be.

“It’s a shame, you know, see­ing her out there the way she is. There’s a lot of his­tory in the Kyle,” he said. “There was talks years ago of turn­ing her into a mu­seum. I know that’s been done in other places with ships be­fore, but it never worked out that way for (the SS Kyle).

“It was a rough life­style, of course, be­ing out on the wa­ter for so long, but most of us loved it any­way.”

– He­ber McGurk

“I’d love to see her main­tained, but you’re talk­ing about a lot of money there, so I can’t see it ever hap­pen­ing. Still, I know she’s got a good many years left to sit there. I won’t see her go in my life­time, and it might be an­other hun­dred years be­fore any­thing does hap­pen, but it will hap­pen even­tu­ally.”

McGurk takes great pride in his life at sea, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the years he spent aboard the SS Kyle. Hav­ing lost no men from his crews, which of­ten spanned into the hun­dreds, he says there’s a strong sense of sat­is­fac­tion in the things he and his fel­low crew mem­bers ac­com­plished, and knows that even when the ship no longer sits in the wa­ters of Har­bour Grace, her story will con­tinue to live on.

“It’s im­por­tant to me, these mem­o­ries. Lots of good times, lots of bad times, but I’ll never for­get them no mat­ter what.”


The SS Kyle has re­mained where it ran aground in the har­bour in Har­bour Grace 51 years ago.

He­ber McGurk served as quar­ter­mas­ter and mas­ter watch aboard the SS Kyle in the 1960s. Now, he keeps those mem­o­ries alive through artis­tic pro­jects in­spired by his time at sea.

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